In case it has been too long since a prestige actress has been mixed up in a murder on HBO, Oscar and Emmy winner Olivia Colman arrives to fill the void with Landscapers, a new limited series about a real-life double murder in England in the late 1990s. The actress stars as Susan Edwards, who was convicted alongside her husband Christopher (David Thewlis) for murdering both of her parents and burying them in their backyard.
You wouldn’t be blamed for having your guard up about this one. I wholeheartedly concur with weary viewers out there that There Is Too Much True-Crime Media. But Landscapers begins by setting itself apart from the navel-gazing inherent to the genre and its hungry masses, excelling through the humanity which it attempts to view its possibly murderous couple and the florid aesthetics it employs to understand their psychology. Landscapers isn’t the true-crime of your I’m-being-ironic podcast host or Reddit scourer; it’s more like Terence Davies’ or Lynne Ramsay’s true-crime, with a cinema-literate and stagy flair.
We meet the Edwards living abroad in France, a decade after the crime occurred. They are all but destitute, the entrance to their dingy flat looking like a prison cell they will soon be locked inside. While Chris struggles to find work due to not speaking French, Susan finds comfort in her passion for old movies, her few luxuries being rewatches of High Noon and a wall of framed photographs of actors from westerns. Meanwhile, Chris receives a letter from none other than Gerard Depardieu (?!), though given she reads it in voiceover, we can safely assume that it is merely Susan pulling a Lee Israel as a secret gift to her beloved husband.
Life in France was supposed to be a kind of dream scenario and the reality is proving to be anything but, yet that doesn’t stop either of them from living in a fantasy world. They are coming apart at the seems, caught in the kind of fraught dynamic we usually see in these stories that leads to a murder rather than results from one. They are completely alone, hiding a secret they won’t put to words—until Chris absentmindedly lets it slip in a call to his stepmother Tabitha that there are two bodies buried in the garden behind Susan’s parents’ home. She immediately goes to the police. Any further questions about how responsible they are (and how they got away with it for a decade plus) will have to wait for further episodes, as the premiere is focused on how the Edwards’ came into custody.
This all makes for a murderous scenario familiar to the genre, but approached by director Will Sharpe with an entirely different kind of sensationalism. Rather than miring us in the muck of the case’s sordid details, he deploys several cinematic flourishes that immerse us in the Edwards’ delusions. Susan imagines herself as a participant in the kind of film she adores, with Chris as its reliable hero. Indeed, the Edwards are almost too painfully real, with Sharpe establishing their codependent isolation in vibrant detail: a baked potato dinner that underlines their dead-end financial and legal situation, the word “family” spurring Susan’s firmest rebuttal against the two seeking outside help, the tightest close-ups reserved for their final moments alone before turning themselves over to the police.
The overall effect is queasy and lurid but places us within the Edwards’ psyches, with Sharpe’s vision presenting as an acknowledgment of the whole ethos around true crime as an entertainment. There’s a jarring tonal whiplash once the authorities enter the proceedings after Tabitha’s call (with Kate O’Flynn as Emma leading the investigative charge), their comic air feeling intrusive to the human story happening elsewhere. You see this farcical bent in the Wycherly’s neighbors, as well. It’s a purposeful juxtaposition: Sharpe positions them with an emotional distance to the crime and the Edwards that allows them to make a bit of a farce over the proceedings, much like how murders are packaged for obsessives in gauche documentaries, podcasts, and the like. Similarly, Tabitha’s call to the police appears like the archest noir homage, almost like spreading gossip. Sharpe fills the frame with onlookers as the Wycherley’s exhumed bodies are taken away, but they don’t feel like the only ones rubbernecking to the crime.
In the hands of Sharpe (reuniting here with his Flowers star Colman), Landscapers is a true-crime exercise more odd than viewers might expect, and more metatextually minded. This perspective both reflects on our relationship with the genre and serves a character study that informs us on that genre’s ills. It’s valuable to ask why we keep telling this type of stories and why many remain entertained by the most muckraking versions of them, but this premiere does so deceptively to earn both our intrigue and (more importantly) our empathy.
This angle is gifted with two emotionally intelligent and rigorous players in Colman and Thewlis. The Crown star latches to her costar and lends Susan’s need for Chris’ allegiance to her deluded evasions with a sense of desperation as present in her physicality as it is her oceanic gaze. Thewlis matches Colman’s emotional depth with a buckling tension that illustrates years of crumbling resolve behind his exhausted gait. They have a real chemistry that establishes their dormant panic, and that chemistry firmly establishes Susan and Chris’ entangled mindsets right before ripping them apart at the hands of the law.
Thus far, Landscapers aims to tell a sadder tale than a salacious one, offering a telling that is less interested in the crime than it is in the circumstance of the couple who may or may not have committed it. Guilt or innocence is essentially out of consideration here, revealing Sharpe and writer Ed Sinclair’s intentions to upend our expectations by focusing first on the humanity (however deluded and desperate) of the prime suspects. This will become more complicated over the incoming episodes, but here the show finds a way to engage with the mystery without the genre’s dehumanizing tactics. It’s less that the couple is portrayed as sadsack saints and more that Landscapers wishes us to understand their psychology on an intimate, humane level before the details of the crime and its fallout can sway any audience attentions to more puerile impulses. Contrast that with the sterile sensationalism of the newsreel footage in the closing credits and it appears to be pulling that feat off quite convincingly.
Susan and Chris have been writing their truths in their heads in order to escape what is crushingly real. In this first episode, Landscapers promises to be a series about different kinds of storytelling: the way we as a culture consume stories of tragic violence and the stories we tell ourselves to get through our darkest chapters.
- Susan’s delusion also manifests in her dress: when she leaves the apartment, she dons a beret, trenchcoat, and cateye sunglasses, very Being A Woman Who Belongs In France drag.
- Olivia Colman watches Grace Kelly’s performance in High Noon this episode, and both are Best Actress Oscar winners (Colman for The Favourite, Kelly for The Country Girl), making this the rare occasion for audiences to watch an Oscar-winning actress watch the performance of another Oscar-winning actress.
- Also spotted in Susan’s pseudo shrine: Gary Cooper (obviously), Henry Fonda, more Depardieu, and Kirk Douglas.